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UNSPEAKABLE WORDS, UNMASTERABLE FEELINGS: CALAMITY AND THE MAKING OF HISTORY IN ASANTE

  • TOM MCCASKIE (a1)
Abstract

The present article explores crucial aspects of the Asante understanding and construction of their own historical experience. Specifically, it historicizes the royal oaths of the first two Asante rulers Osei Tutu (d. 1717) and Opoku Ware (d. 1750). These have long been understood to be fundamental elements in the working of Asante society and culture, but here they are situated precisely as historical testaments and mnemonics. Attention is paid to current debates on matters of emotion, affect and performance, but the focus of the article is an empirical and exemplary investigation of history-making among the Asante.

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1 See McCaskie, T., ‘Telling the tale of Osei Bonsu: an essay on the making of Asante oral history’, Africa, 84:3 (2014), 353–70; now reprinted as ch. 50 in McCaskie, T., Asante, Kingdom of Gold: Essays in the History of an African Culture (Durham, NC, 2015), 967–83.

2 See generally, Robinson, E., ‘Touching the void: affective history and the impossible’, Rethinking History: The Journal of History and Practice, 14:4 (2010), 503–20. See on Africa, de Luna, K. M., ‘Affect and society in precolonial Africa’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 46:1 (2013), 123–50; Hunt, N., ‘The affective, the intellectual, and gender history’, The Journal of African History, 55:3 (2014), 331–45; Hunt, N., A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo (Durham, NC, 2016); and McCaskie, T., ‘Dreamworlds: cultural narrative in Asante visionary experience’, in Rossi, B. and Green, T. (eds.), Landscapes, Sources and Intellectual Projects: Politics, History and the West African Past (Leiden, 2018, forthcoming).

3 Palmié, S. and Stewart, C., ‘Introduction: for an anthropology of history’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 6:1 (2016), 207–36.

4 Plamper, J., The History of Emotions: An Introduction (Oxford, 2015). I note in passing that this volume has a ‘select’ bibliography of thirty pages, and is in a new series dedicated to ‘Emotions in History’, 309–42.

5 Agyekum, K., ‘The communicative role of silence in Akan’, Pragmatics, 12:1 (2002), 3151 (49); see further Agyekum, K., ‘Menstruation as a verbal taboo among the Akan’, Journal of Anthropological Research, 58:3 (2002), 376–87; Agyekum, K., ‘Ntam “reminiscential oath” taboo among the Akan’, Language in Society, 33:3 (2004), 317–42; and Agyekum, K., Akan Verbal Taboos in the Context of the Ethnography of Communication (Accra, 2010). Interesting materials are to be found in Obeng, S. G., ‘Communication strategies: persuasion and politeness in Akan judicial discourse’, Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, 17:1 (1997), 2552.

6 Yankah, K., ‘9/11 and the painful death of an Asante king: national tragedies in comparative perspective’, in Peterson, D. R., Gavua, K., and Rassool, C. (eds.), The Politics of Heritage in Africa: Economies, Histories, and Infrastructures (Cambridge, 2015), 176–90 (190).

7 McCaskie, T., State and Society in Pre-Colonial Asante (Cambridge, 1995), 170, 297.

8 See Ampene, K. and Nyantakyi, Nana Kwadwo III, Engaging Modernity: Asante in the Twenty-First Century (Ann Arbor, MI, 2016), 166–9.

9 I heard and recorded this performance in the company of the late Kwame Arhin (Nana Arhin Brempong), and he and I talked over and revised the resulting transcription and its meaning(s) on many occasions; see Arhin, K., ‘The Asante praise poems: the ideology of patrimonialism’, Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde, 32 (1986), 163–97.

10 Bowdich, T., Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London, 1819), 233; Dupuis, J., Journal of a Residence in Ashantee (London, 1824), 230–3; and Algemeen Rijksarchief, The Hague, NBKG/84, Elmina Journal, enclosing a letter from Van Alzen at Accra, 30 Oct. 1717.

11 Bowdich, Mission, 233, 266; and see McCaskie, T., ‘Time and the calendar in nineteenth-century Asante: an exploratory essay’, History in Africa, 7 (1980), 179200; now reprinted as ch. 9 in McCaskie, Asante, Kingdom of Gold, 99–120.

12 Basel Mission Archives, Basel, D-1,79, Annual Report from the Kumase Station, 20 Feb. 1904; and see McCaskie, T., ‘Local knowledge: an Akuapem Twi history of Asante’, History in Africa, 38 (2011), 169–92; now reprinted as ch. 49 in McCaskie, Asante, Kingdom of Gold, 951–66.

13 Agyekum, Akan Verbal Taboos, 26–7, 48–9.

14 Dupuis, Journal, 233.

15 Bowdich, Mission, 297.

16 Dupuis, Journal, 232.

17 Bowdich, Mission, 358–9; for context, see McCaskie, T., ‘Custom, tradition, and law in precolonial Asante’, in van Rouveroy van Nieuwaal, E. A. B. and Zips, W. (eds.), Sovereignty, Legitimacy and Power in West African Societies: Perspectives from Legal Anthropology (Hamburg, 1998), 2547; now reprinted as ch. 26 in McCaskie, Asante, Kingdom of Gold, 465–82.

18 Bowdich, Mission, 266.

19 Dupuis, Journal, 232; and McCaskie, ‘Time and the calendar’.

20 See Boahen, A. A., Akyeampong, E., Lawler, N.. McCaskie, T., and Wilks, I. (eds.), ‘The History of Ashanti Kings and the Whole Country Itself’ and Other Writings by Otumfuo, Nana Agyeman Prempeh I (Oxford, 2003), 113–14.

21 Ibid. 189.

22 Dupuis, Journal, 231.

23 See Rosenwein, B. H., Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY, 2006), 27–8.

24 Manhyia Palace, Kumase, ‘History of Ashanti’, manuscript prepared by a committee under the chairmanship of Asantehene Osei Agyeman Prempeh II, 1937–46. I am currently preparing this text for publication by Oxford University Press in the British Academy's Fontes Historiae Africanae, New Series.

25 For context, see McCaskie, T., ‘Akwankwaa: Owusu Sekyere Agyeman in his life and times’, Ghana Studies, 1 (1999), 91122; and McCaskie, T., ‘Asante origins, Egypt, and the Near East: an idea and its history’, in Peterson, D. R. and Macola, G. (eds.), Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa (Athens, OH, 2009), 125–48. Both of these are now reprinted as chs. 28 and 45 in McCaskie, Asante, Kingdom of Gold, 505–31, 877–96.

26 Reindorf, C. C., History of the Gold Coast and Asante (Basel, 1895), 68–9. For Reindorf's sources, see Jones, A., ‘Reindorf the historian’, and McCaskie, T., ‘Asante and Ga: the history of a relationship’, both in Jenkins, P. (ed.), The Recovery of the West African Past: African Pastors and African History in the Nineteenth Century: C. C. Reindorf and Samuel Johnson (Basel, 1998), 115–33, 135–53; my essay is now reprinted as ch. 27 in McCaskie, Asante, Kingdom of Gold, 483–504.

27 Nantwi, from Saaman near Kumase, was later appointed the first Kumase Gyaasehene by Asantehene Opoku Ware.

28 In the apae Osei Tutu has the byname adaka gye abuo, signifying ‘the coffin that received seven bullets’.

29 The (hi)story recounted in the section just completed is drawn principally from ‘History of Ashanti’, ch. 3, ‘Life of Osei Tutu’, 1–73 and ch. 4, ‘Opoku Ware Katakyie’, 1–49.

30 McCaskie, T., ‘Komfo Anokye of Asante: meaning, history, and philosophy in an African society’, The Journal of African History, 27:2 (1986), 315–39; now reprinted as ch. 18 in McCaskie, Asante, Kingdom of Gold, 279–304.

31 Agyekum, Akan Verbal Taboos, 50.

32 See Winsnes, S. A. (ed. and trans.), A Reliable Account of the Coast of Guinea (1760) (Oxford, 2000), esp. 150–60; for context, see Justesen, O. (ed.) and Manley, J. (trans.), Danish Sources for the History of Ghana 1657–1754, 2 vols. (Copenhagen, 2005).

33 Kpobi, D., Saga of a Slave: Jacobus Capitein of Holland and Elmina (Accra, 2001), 101.

34 ‘History of Ashanti’, ch. 4, ‘Opoku Ware Katakyie’.

35 For broader context, see Wilks, I., ‘The Golden Stool and the Elephant Tail: wealth in Asante’, Research in Economic Anthropology, 2 (1979), 136; revised and reprinted in Wilks, I., Forests of Gold: Essays on the Akan and the Kingdom of Asante (Athens, OH, 1993), 127–67; and McCaskie, T., ‘Accumulation, wealth, and belief in Asante history: I. To the close of the nineteenth century’, and ‘II. The twentieth century’, Africa, 53:1 (1983), 2343, and 56:1 (1986), 3–23; now reprinted as chs. 12 and 17 in McCaskie, Asante, Kingdom of Gold, 167–87, 257–78.

36 Winsnes, A Reliable Account, 155–60.

37 Years ago Ivor Wilks and I discussed this possible medical diagnosis at great length; see Wilks, I., Asante in the Nineteenth Century: The Structure and Evolution of a Political Order (Cambridge, 1975), 330–1; since then I have reviewed all of the accumulated evidence with my friend Dr John Cheesbrough, and it appears that it is distinctly possible that Opoku Ware did suffer from acromegaly.

38 Boahen et al. (eds.), ‘History of Ashanti Kings’, 133.

39 The most detailed but still inconclusive discussion of this matter is in National Archives of Ghana, Accra, ADM 11/1/1338, Case no. EP 200/1924, Final report on the tribal organisation of the Adonten Abrempon of Kumasi: evidence and testimonies, 24 Mar. 1925.

40 For the sword, see Ampene and Nana Kwadwo Nyantakyi III, Engaging Modernity, 126.

41 For the supernatural intimacy between an Asantehene and the bosommuru sword, see McCaskie, ‘Telling the tale of Osei Bonsu’.

42 Boahen et al. (eds.), ‘History of Ashanti Kings’, 113–14, 130 (emphases added).

43 A widely known tradition surely symbolizes one of the ‘signs’ given by Komfo Anokye. He is said to have told both Opoku Ware and Boa Akwatia to plant spears at Kumase Pampaso and Asaaman respectively. Opoku Ware's spear grew pods that opened to reveal both harmless and poisonous reptiles, denoting a future line of good and bad rulers. Predictably, in this telling, Boa Akwatia's spear produced nothing, the implication being that his line would lead to the swift extinction of Asante; see McCaskie, State and Society, 47.

44 Boahen et al. (eds.), ‘History of Ashanti Kings’, 133.

45 The most comprehensive but still inconclusive review of these matters is in Pescheux, G., Le royaume asante (Ghana): Parenté, pouvoir, histoire: XVIIe-XXe siècles (Paris, 2003), esp. 403–40.

46 Dupuis, Journal, 233 (emphasis added).

47 Reindorf, History, 112n; at the same place it is reported that the rulers of Kwaman (Kumase) before the Oyoko Osei Tutu were all members of an Ekuona lineage.

48 For a thoughtful discussion, see Akyeampong, E. and Obeng, P., ‘Spirituality, gender, and power in Asante history’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 28:3 (1995), 481508.

49 See Ginzburg, C., Threads and Traces: True False Fictive (Berkeley, CA, 2012), 215.

Thanks to Asantehene Opoku Ware II (1970–99), who allowed access to the unclassified papers held in the Manhyia palace, and with whom I often talked over the matters discussed here. I thank too his successor Asantehene Osei Tutu II, and also Kwame Arhin, Baffour Osei Akoto, Buasiako Antwi, Osei Kwadwo, Tommy Aning, and Yaw Andoh. I am grateful to Nancy Hunt for exchanges on the broader issues discussed here. Last but not least, I thank those who reviewed this article, for their care, empathy, and insight. Author's email:

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